A Dandy from Madrid: William Powell in The Bright Shawl
William Powell, one of classic Hollywood’s most appealing stars of the ‘30s and ‘40s, began his career in silent pictures as a character actor who made one of the best villains during the 1920s. That villainous screen persona was established in his first two films Sherlock Holmes and When Knighthood Was in Flower in 1922.
Outcast, William Powell’s third picture and first to introduce the young actor to Paramount Pictures, is a lost film. Released in December 1922 and starring the then-notable star Elsie Ferguson as a prostitute eventually redeemed by true love, Outcast was not particularly well-received by critics who deemed it necessary to compare the film with the 1914 original play by Hubert Henry Davies in which Ferguson starred. By all accounts, Powell’s role was a small one as a man named De Valle with whom Ferguson has a dalliance. How extensive that role was is, alas, lost to the ages.
Powell’s fourth film, however, still exists and it was a breakthrough for the aspiring actor. Produced by Inspiration Pictures and released in April 1923, The Bright Shawl features Powell in his most showy role yet. Interestingly enough, it’s the presence of a panoply of future stars in supporting roles far more than the featured stars in The Bright Shawl that make this a particularly notable film. The Bright Shawl was a showcase for ex-D.W. Griffith stock company stars Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy Gish. Besides Powell, the film also featured future Warner Bros. stars Mary Astor, still a teenage ingénue, and Edward G. Robinson in his second film playing a man 30 years his senior.
Barthelmess had come to prominence in the D.W. Griffith films Broken Blossoms and Way Down East and developed a screen persona of the innocent, guileless and honest juvenile seeking danger and adventure. After breaking off from Griffith, as all of his underpaid stars eventually did, Barthelmess joined with Henry King at the fledgling Inspiration Pictures in 1921 and starred in the hit Tol’able David, an Appalachian David-and-Goliath story that exploited Barthelmess’ gifts as a pantomimic actor. While not possessing the true stone face of a Buster Keaton, Barthelmess was still able to convey a great deal of emotion and thought while seemingly doing very little.
John S. Robertson, the director of the film, is a name completely dismissed by film scholars today. An able craftsman, his most notable works in an 18-year directing career that wouldn’t survive very long into the talking era were the 1920 John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Mary Pickford’s 1922 version of Tess of the Storm Country. Adapted from a novel by Joseph Hergesheimer, The Bright Shawl unfolds with a complicated plot that manages to overcome its abundant intertitles. Robertson stages the action competently and at times creates some lovely compositions that accommodate a wealth of characters and settings.
The picture takes place in 1850s Cuba still under the thumb of Spanish rule and opens with a somber dedication to “our martyred president William McKinley, whose true American statesmanship brought freedom to the people of Cuba.” Barthelmess plays Charles Abbott, a young American who has come to Cuba with his friend Andres Escobar, a Cuban patriot returning to his family’s home where his older brother Vincente lies dying from wounds received in battle against the Spanish. The Escobars, which include patriarch Domingo (Edward G. Robinson as E.G. Robinson) and daughter Narcissa (Mary Astor), are targeted by the Spanish authorities for colluding in a potential insurrection.
The villain of the piece is Captain Santacilla, played by Anders Randolf, a loyal and fiendish Spanish spy who is accompanied by Captain de Vaca, equally as fiendish, portrayed by William Powell. We first see Powell lying languidly on a three chairs lined in a row, smoking a cigarette as the title describes de Vaca as “a dandy from Madrid who lacked the vicious energy of his brother officer.” A brief close-up of Powell shows him as a man so lazy it takes all his effort just to hold his cigar. Randolf as Santacilla gives us what we expect from a silent-film villain. His mustache is enormous, he’s portly and leering, prone to overacting and histrionics, Powell as de Vaca shows admirable restraint. A raised eyebrow here, a smirk there, Powell with his mustache, soul patch and aggressive sideburns certainly looks the part but his stillness provides a fine counterpoint to Randolf’s loud, villainous buffoonery and paradoxically we notice him more.
Dorothy Gish played dancer La Clavel, the “brilliant flower of Spain,” a seeming ally of Santacilla but whose heart eventually leads her to the Cuban cause. When Captain Santacilla begins to suspect La Clavel of sending messages to the rebels of Santacilla’s plans that she overhears he plants a false military plan with her to confirm her duplicity and to snare the rebels in a trap. When Charles learns of Santacilla’s plans, a vicious fight ensues that ends with the deaths of both La Clavel and Santacilla.
Interestingly, the big star Dorothy Gish and the main villain have both been dispatched halfway through the film. Abbott still has to warn the rebels that Santacilla has laid a trap for them and he rushes to warn them. What occurs then is William Powell’s emergence as a great screen villain. Now that Santacilla has been killed, de Vaca is in charge. With calm efficiency, de Vaca has his soldiers kill Andres Escobar, and de Vaca takes Narcissa and her mother prisoner.
When Charles Abbott arrives at the Escobar’s home to confront Powell, he’s still exhausted from his battle with Santacelli. What makes Barthelmess effective as a pantomimic actor is his relatively subdued manner belies an explosive nature, something Barthelmess and director Henry King successfully exploited in the early Tol’able David in a spectacular fistfight between David and Ernest Torrance’s “Goliath.” In the battle with Santacelli, Barthelmess really let loose, and he does a fine job portraying utter exhaustion and hysteria at the same time when he faces Powell.
The fascinating transformation of Powell’s character de Vaca – portrayed seemingly as a lazy gadabout at the beginning of the film – shows how Powell immediately captured the attention of audiences. While he SEEMED lazy, what he was really conveying was a cool, steely confidence. You see it in the way he holds his cigar, his eyelids half-shut. De Vaca says to Abbott via intertitles: “Would you care to be shot with your back against a prison wall Mr. Abbott? Or would you rather take a chance with me?”
The intertitles relate: Exhausted – surrounded by enemies – faced by the deadly swordsmanship of de Vaca, Charles resolved to die fighting.
Powell’s stillness and charisma makes him a far more effective villain than Santacelli. Richard Barthelmess’s is consumed by rage, hysterical, held back by soldiers and there’s De Vaca’s bemused stillness in contrast.
As they begin the duel with swords, de Vaca bends his sword mockingly and begins his fight with Abbott, with his left arm curled behind his back. When he manages to nick Barthelmess’ wrist, he simply nods slightly with his eyebrows raised. Again, not the demonstrative silent-film villain we might expect.
When a soldier knocks down Barthelmess to help Powell, Powell slaps the soldier to the ground for interfering. Here is a villain who plays a fair game, shaking his head seeing the exhausted Barthelmess, crumpled on the ground, exhausted, defeated. Charles says, “Kill me.” De Vaca reluctantly, almost with an expression of pity, gives Barthelmess a chance to stand up again. Barthelmess attempts to begin the fight again but passes out. De Vaca simply looks down at him and places his sword in his scabbard, with that slight expression of pity tempered by a measure of respect. Fade out.
What follows is a most peculiar, unique epilogue for 1923 Hollywood:
THE SORRY END OF HIS ADVENTURE
When we fade in, the hero Barthelmess is tied to a pole in the underbelly of a ship headed back to America. A worker lets him looks and gives him a package with a note:
I do such strange things. I am afraid I will never understand myself. But I admire courage – it is my weakness – hence you and all your belongings are on a ship bound for home.
Goodbye my friend,
The package is the shawl and he opens the door and Narcissa and her mother are in there. He holds the shawl as they embrace.
Remarkably, that’s the end of film: a 1923 Hollywood film in which the hero is defeated in disgrace and the villain continues to suppress the brave rebels. It’s a starkly realistic ending to be sure, and runs counter to everything we expect from Old Hollywood.
But what it does is cement William Powell as a considerable force with which to be reckoned in only his fourth film. While the first two films give him somewhat of a showcase (with the third film a bit of a mystery) here he has a real opportunity to shine. He establishes himself as a heroic villain. Quiet, sure, confident. He’s handsome, with a dash of swarthiness to make him seem “exotic” and “mysterious.” He’s not a Rudolph Valentino playing the Sheik, the dangerous seducer who women can’t resist. No, he’s a villain, but an honorable one. Not the cartoon of his predecessor Anders Randolf, who just seemed like your typical sexually aggressive buffoon. And William Powell WINS. The climactic swordfight, popularized earlier in the ‘20s by Douglas Fairbanks, the cinema’s first swashbuckler as Zorro, d’Artangnan and Robin Hood, ends in disgrace and misery for the hero. Powell could not have asked for a better role. He smirks, smokes, buckles swashes and defeats the hero.
In the July 1923 issue of Photoplay, William Powell was listed as one of the Six Best Performances of the Month along with Barthelmess, Charles Ray and Patsy Ruth Miller in “The Girl I Loved,” and Betty Compson and Anna Q. Nilsson in “The Rustle of Silk.” Clearly, he was beginning to be noticed.